Early in the spring, the marsh marigold's bright yellow flowers spring from the chilly streams and marshes. Elk feed on the large fleshy leaves, but for humans, the succulent greens must be boiled to remove their poison.
Kinnikinik or Common Bearberry
The low dense mat of the bearberry grows in coarse sandy soil, trailing over rotten logs, dry slopes and rocky areas. By August, the nodding clusters of flowers produced mealy-textured berries eaten only to prevent starvation.
The bright red berries complement the glossy green leaves used as a tea to heal cankers and sore gums. A bearberry cream treated skin sores and rashes. The leathery evergreen leaves can be smoked when dried and combined with tobacco. The Aboriginal people called this smoking mixture – and the plant – kinnikinik.
Thickets of the wild rose grow throughout Alberta. In early June, Alberta's floral emblem colours the province in pink-hued blossoms. By late summer, scarlet “hips” replace the fragrant flowers providing fruit high in vitamin C for the Aboriginal people and the fur traders.
Singly or in groups, the round-topped body of the puffball fungus springs up through the moist, rich soil of pastures, fields and gardens. According to Blackfoot legend, the prairie puffball is the temporary earthly form of a star fallen to earth during a supernatural event. The Aboriginal people called the earthly stars Kah-kah-toos meaning “less powerful” and painted puffball images around their tipis.
Once, a supernatural being who took the heavenly form of the “Morningstar” brought a Blackfoot woman to live in the heavens as his wife. She bore a child of human and star descent. One day, she pulled a turnip from her heavenly garden and saw the earth through the hole. Becoming homesick, she begged to go home with her child. Morningstar allowed them to return but warned that the child must not touch the ground for fourteen days to become fully human. Nearing the last day, she became overconfident and went out to gather firewood. The grandmother carelessly let the baby touch the ground. The infant transformed into a puffball or earthly star so it could return to heaven as the “Fixed” or “North Star.”
In summer, the red-osier dogwood blends with spreading shrubs and leafy trees in shady, damp habitats. After the rich green leaves fall and the stark white berries mature, the tree transforms into a network of thin stems covered in shiny, bright red bark. This striking winter silhouette attracted the attention of the Aboriginal people who saw the display as the work of a supernatural power.
Long ago, so the Blackfoot people say, the tree had white bark. But, one day, a mythical figure called Napi saw some gophers playing a game in the warm ashes of his campfire. The gophers took turns burying each other in the ashes. The trapped gophers would be quickly uncovered when they became too hot and cried out.
Napi joined the game and persuaded all the gophers to get into the ashes. (Only a pregnant gopher resisted and Napi let her go saying she must propagate the species.) He roasted the buried gophers and served them on a plate woven of thin red-osier dogwood branches. The gophers' blood and fat dripped onto the plate and turned the bark red.
To this day, the dogwood's bark is red and heat rising from a fire causes “fat” to drip from the branches.
The short shrubs and upright bushes bearing the “saskatoon” amply filled prairie ditch or covered a prairie knoll. The ripe, black clusters of berries supplemented the diet of the Aboriginal people and the fur traders. Pounding together the crushed (often wormy) berries with dry meat and melted animal fat produced a rich, naturally preserved pemmican.
The Aboriginal people traded pemmican for goods at the fur-trade posts. The fur traders depended on this pemmican for food when game became scarce.
Silverberry or Wolf Willow
The silverberry bush forms in groves along streams and seepages of water from creeks and river. Overlapping scales on the leaves and twigs produce the sliver sheen. The Aboriginal people strung necklaces of glistening silverberry beads often interspaced with the knobby blue berries of the juniper.
Aboriginal children braided the bark of the silverberry into short ropes for a winter game. A child would set a stone on ice and wind the bark rope around the stone, pull the stone quickly and cause the stone to spin like a top.
The slender sweet grass plants border marshes, ponds and wet ground. The spiky leaves and stems emit a sweet and alluring scent. The Aboriginal people burned the plant as incense. The incense-maker bound one end of a handful of stems and crossed the lengths in a double-strand braid. Pieces broken from a “wick” of sweetgrass incense and placed on hot coals perfumed the air, contributing to the religious ambience during ceremonies and daily prayers. The Aboriginal people believed a person would not tell a lie if he inhaled the sweetgrass bouquet.
Wild Mint or Canada Mint
Hidden patches of the leafy, square-stemmed plant flourish around damp wooded spots and along ditches and creeks. Crushing the herbs sets free a refreshingly alerting smell. The Aboriginal people dried and stored mint to spice pemmican and soup. These dried leaves immersed in hot water produced a stimulating infusion for drinking and to relieve a sore throat or indigestion.
Rows of willows form in sunlit spaces along creeks and river banks. The supple willow limbs bent easily in forming small, dome-shaped sweatlodges or steam-baths. The Aboriginal people covered the structures with buffalo robes and blankets. The doors always faced the East and the West.
Inside, steam rose from hot, water-splashed stones rolled into a small, centre pit. The vaporous air drew sweat from the four to six occupants. The men performed rituals in the steam to purify themselves.